cover image CHANCE IN THE HOUSE OF FATE: A Natural History of Heredity

CHANCE IN THE HOUSE OF FATE: A Natural History of Heredity

Jennifer Ackerman, . . Houghton Mifflin, $25 (272pp) ISBN 978-0-618-08287-2

Ackerman (Notes from the Shore) offers another series of natural science essays, this one concerning the continuity and discontinuity of cellular, sometimes molecular, existence. A fascination with the "natural history of heredity" may be written into Ackerman's DNA—her youngest sister has a rare genetic syndrome—and propels her career as a science reporter, so that even the mechanics of genes make for quite personal reporting, early Annie Dillard–style (viz. her conception of genetics as "the past whispered in bone and blood"). Terms that many readers will recall from biology texts become for Ackerman, a relative newcomer to molecular science via the biology "of the whole organism," characters in a thrumming, deep-time performance piece by proteins, enzymes and mitochondria: "the cosmos of molecules and cells has surprising beauties and minute dramas." She chases her themes in and out of the nucleus, up and down the phylogenic tree from E. coli to the giant squid's eye to her own daughters in utero—all points of departure for 18 energetic expositions on genetics and other biomechanisms like morbidity, sexual reproduction, the immune system and the oldest of senses, smell. Some attempts to project the microscopic up to a visible-to-laypersons scale fall flat, but her style overall is a sweet hybrid of popular science and expansive prose. A sense of wonder and clearheaded respect for the raw biochemical chance that shadows evolution leads Ackerman into interesting corners not explored in recent genetics titles like Matt Ridley's Genome. Agent, Melanie Jackson. (June 1)

Forecast: Ackerman will tour as part of Houghton's Literature in Science series. The house is bullish on her, and booksellers love her, too. With handselling and good reviews, the first printing of 25,000 should sell nicely.